Big events bring sucker-punches. The RFF rolls with ’em

MUSIC by Devin Pacholik

On the surface, folk festivals are about good vibes, inclusive and safe spaces and, of course, quality music.

But there is also a dark side. And we media types love to sensationalize it for your entertainment.


What dark side, you ask? We’re talking musician drama, inclement weather and roving gangs of drum-circle dread heads who spread positive emotions like a zombie plague. With the Regina Folk Festival taking place from August 7 to 9, we wanted to brace for the madness coming to the Queen City. Given the recent cancellation of headlining singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor, is this year’s festival doomed? Will the city collapse into a folksy black hole? Are we being hyperbolic enough? Yeah, probably.

We reached out to artistic director and CEO Sandra Butel to find out what it takes to put on the Regina Folk Festival, and what disasters she has overcome in the past. Here is a condensed version of that conversation.

How long have you been involved with the festival?

I started in 1999. I guess this would be 17 festivals.

What’s been the biggest learning curve?

Everything. I was given one file folder with not much in it. I knew nothing about how to run a festival.

What drew you in?

I used to go with my parents. I would always have some moment during the festival when I was moved by the experience. Now, it’s about so much more. My passion for music is about my passion for people.

Does it give you a sense of civic pride?

Oh yeah. I would challenge you to find someone who isn’t smiling. People feel welcome at our festival. There are people there from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. That’s a big deal. There’s a large portion of our society that doesn’t feel welcome all the time. It’s important to have a space where no one is seen as being different.

Based on the language in the festival’s promotional material, inclusivity seems like an important goal.

It’s incredibly important. We had Sinead O’Connor cancel, and we could’ve been negative about it. It’s important to us to put out a message that there’s always a positive. In recent years, we found that voice.

Can you touch on the Sinead O’Connor cancellation?

We hope we’ve paid our dues this year! Everything should go perfectly now. I’ve been referring to myself as Sandra ‘Silver Lining’ Butel. Sinead has a history of canceling. As soon as I booked it, I was nervous. And then it happened. It was actually a relief. It was a lot of extra work, but our team is really good. People’s reactions haven’t been negative. We understand and want [O’Connor] to get better. We made the decision to do refunds, but not many people asked for one.

How does that feel?

People got our backs. We forget that sometimes. [O’Connor] was the top name on the bill and I don’t like when my plans change, but the people are there for us. They were respectful.

This isn’t the first time plans have changed. In 2003, Tegan and Sara were separated.

That one was a bigger story. There was a power outage in eastern Canada and the U.S. I had four different artists coming from Ontario and they were all scrambling to get here. Tegan and Sara’s people called me and said one was in Edmonton and one was in Montreal. They asked if we were willing to pay the fee for one of them, and I said, ‘Yeah!’ It was a charming show in the end. Tegan put up a drawing of her sister on stage. No one has ever gotten that show before.

What about the weather? Any memorable incidents on that front?

Last year was probably the big one. We caught a storm 40 minutes before it happened and sent people home. It was crazy. Tents fell down. There was lightning for four hours… We dealt with some nasty people, but they couldn’t see what we saw on the radar. We’ve since expanded our emergency planning.

Do Regina audiences have any particular quirks you had to overcome?

Generally, people get it. There are some people who don’t like when things change though. Ha! When I started, the festival had been in around since 1969. Volunteers were generally performing. When I came in, I wanted it to be something more — something professional. There were some people who were resistant to [things like] the definition of folk. In my mind, it’s massive. It includes people of colour, female artists and LGBT artists.

This year, is there a local act you’re most looking forward to?

Andy Shauf. I love that guy. He’s an amazing songwriter and musician. His music moves me. Out of 34 artists, we have 17 Saskatchewan performers. I’m excited we have a calibre of local talent that fits.

What about acts you’re bringing in? Who are excited for?

If Andy is for me, the artist that is for the audience has to be The Blind Boys of Alabama. I’m eager to see the audience discover them. People who might be coming just to see Vance Joy will lose their stuff. These guys got cred.